Post Charleston: Putting ourselves in other’s shoes (and pews)!

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“The most segregated hour of the week is the Sunday worship service.”

-source unknown

As much as we’d all like to put it behind us, the unsettling images – and ugly racial reminders – of the Charleston massacre are firmly etched in our memories. And for years to come.

Much has been written about what happened. Some will argue that too much has been written. Others too little. However, there’s little doubt that there’s more to come.

Setting aside the views of others, I’m drawn to the perspectives of Kathleen Parker and Eugene Robinson, native South Carolinians, both award-winning editorialists with the Washington Post; she white, he African America. While Robinson encourages us with hope in the aftermath, Parker poses us with the legitimate the question…now what?

Wrote Parker, “Hovering over this beautiful city in the wake of the murders at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church is a puzzle for the good-hearted: Now what? How do Charleston and South Carolina — and the nation — proceed from here? Once the eulogies have ended and life, indeed, goes on, what precisely can one, or many, of us do to resolve the problem of race? 

Though most Americans of various races don’t see each other as enemies, the sentiment is clear. When you put yourself in others’ shoes, it’s harder to think of them as “other.” This is what Americans witnessed in Charleston as black and white residents embraced each other.”

Wrote Robinson,”It is impossible to know whether the Charleston tragedy will someday be seen as a turning point in the nation’s long, difficult struggle with race. But we can hope. The president said that in recent days he has sensed a new openheartedness. That’s certainly the way Charleston felt to me. The city, and really the whole state, displayed a remarkable sense of unity and common purpose. The crowd at Pinckney’s funeral obliterated all racial and ideological lines.”

“After a few choruses of “Kumbaya,” things tend to go back to the way they were,” wrote Robinson. “Is there any reason to believe that this time things will be different? Anyone who went to Pinckney’s funeral at least has to entertain the possibility. 

As the Mother Emanuel choir gave a rendition of the gospel song “Goin’ Up Yonder” that would warm even the most frigid soul, I couldn’t help but think of the verse in Hebrews that says “faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things unseen.” And that brought me back to the subject of hope. But a confluence of events managed to infuse that Charleston arena with more of a sense of hope, and more of the possibility of change, than I’ve felt in a long time.”

Shrouded by the dizzying events of the past week – Supreme Court upholding Obamacare, ruling in support of same sex marriage, escaped prisoners captured in New York state – the danger of the Charleston massacre is that it has the very real possibility of slipping into the abyss of old news, our personal rearview mirrors, distancing itself further and further behind us as we return to the status quo and business as usual.

So do we finally launch a conversation about race? Do we dare? Or are such dialogues too laden with risks and the potential to further divide not bridge? Or do we just outsource the conversation to those in the media?

These are among the questions yours truly posed in a post a few months before Charleston hit us between our eyes and crashed through our comfort zones. So, where are we?

Kathleen Parker hit the proverbial nail on the head with this question: “From leaders in Washington, we often hear of the need for a “national conversation about race.” Again, how? And what does this really mean? “

Let’s face it, race is being discussed across the nation, albeit primarily within the safety of sameness within our homes and within “our own.” We can “thank” our histories and, now, Dylann Roof for that. We’re further indebted to Roof for putting the discussion about the Confederate flag out there for public discourse as well.

So where do we go from here? Just how do we talk about all this and with whom?

Truth is that folks don’t simply put their feelings on hold when they come in contact with others from different racial backgrounds. We all read the same news sources, watch the same television stations, but tend to do so through our own experiences and  “racial lens.”

And part of being human is wanting to talk about, or just make some kind of sense of, things that happen externally, Charleston included.

But the American way, as I pointed out in my earlier post, is to switch the channel, or shift the conversation hoping that emotions will eventually simmer down only if we just stop talking about race so much. However, “race fatigue” or not, we know full well that in a matter of time we’ll get hit by another racial dust-up – aka Charleston – and that, without fail, the pattern will start all over again.

The truth is that the problem too often is we just don’t know much about each given that we exist largely within separate communities and travel in different paths outside the workplace. The extremely rare cross racial scene we witnessed inside the African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston aside, we walk in different shoes and sit in different pews, primarily alongside those who “look like us.”

Okay, assuming that you are ready, willing, able – and courageous enough – to cross the racial divide – here are some of questions to be answered beforehand:

  1. What would be the objectives of such a conversation in the first place?
  2. What would a desired positive outcome look like?
  3. In what ways could the conversation be derailed?
  4. Who should, ideally, participate in the conversation?
  5. Should the conversation be narrowly focused on “black” and “white” or should it include other “races?”
  6. Should black folks first talk favorably about race with other black folks and white folks first talk favorably about race with other white folks before the two shall meet?

Some advice to consider:

Don’t start off talking about race, yet, particularly in the absence of a pre-existing relationship. Begin with something you both (or all) have in common.

Second, sets some ground rules and don’t “bite off more than you can chew.” Start small on small issues then over time, “graduate” to the more complex issues. Over time, you want to widen your sphere of influence by inviting others to join the conversation – the ripple effect, if you will.

Third, the lessons learned should not be just agreeing that racial injustice is apparent (way too easy), but what solutions we can collectively bring to the table in addressing unfinished work in our communities and in our workplaces.

The key to any of this is to allow for inquiry without fear, for filling in each other’s fact gaps, for correction with respect and for fostering a sense that “we’re all in this together.” Any hint of assigning blame or guilt will short circuit the process and should be avoided at all cost.

At the end of each conversation, jointly discuss the experience, particularly what went well and who you both could have done differently. And on the conversation itself, ask each other what do you need to stop doing, start doing, continue doing and improve doing? Set the agenda for the next conversation.

Isn’t it time that we seize moments like Charleston as wake-up calls, opportunities to reaffirm the values of mutual respect, appreciation, forgiveness, a genuine caring about each other, to walk in another shoes ……and sit together in others’ pews?

©Terry Howard is a senior associate, writer, speaker and corporate storyteller based in Douglasville, Georgia. He can he reached at wwhoward3@gmail.com

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